Joe Russ is a musician, singer and songwriter from Richmond, Virginia. In 1988 he moved to Nashville to pursue a career as a songwriter and musician. He says it took 2 years of rejections before he got his first song published by a Nashville publishing company. Those first two years, he says, was like attending “Songwriting University”, and having great songwriters as your professors. Upon “graduation”, he went on to place songs with Charlie Pride’s Pride Music and Loretta Lynn’s King Cole Music among others. He says his biggest thrill was when Country Superstar George Jones put one of his songs “on hold”. Even though Jones didn’t record it, this gave Joe tremendous confidence to know he could write a song that was good enough for a major artist.
As a musician, he has worked with hit makers Percy Sledge (When A Man Loves A Woman), The Impressions (It’s Alright, People Get Ready), Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose (Treat Her Like A Lady, It’s Too Late To Turn Back Now) and Dennis Yost of Classics Four fame (Stormy, Spooky, Everyday With You Girl) and David Lee Murphy. In 1989 he worked with Patsy Lynn, daughter of Country Superstar Loretta Lynn, and was a featured performer at Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch. He also shared the stage doing shows with Molly Hatchet, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Sawyer Brown and with Ray Stevens on the Grand Old Opry stage in Nashville. He says he still writes everyday and performs with his wife, Diane, at venues in the Outer Banks of North Carolina where they have lived since 2004. He says there is nothing like being able to write on the beach as the sun is going down. They travel back to Nashville often to pitch new songs and perform at writer’s nights and plan to move back permanently later this year.
Here is a great article by Joe:
Writing A Song Title: Brainstorming
After several decades writing songs, I have my own system I try to follow when I sit down to write a new song. I have finally learned, after thousands of times when a song never got finished, to follow this system or I know I’ll be wasting my time.
know one of the first things I’m going to have to do is start brainstorming for a good song title. You have to get started with a good title, because if you don’t have a good title you don’t have a song. You need to find a memorable song title, whether it is a rock song title, a country song title or whatever style song you want to write. Song titles can make the writing of the song so much easier. How do you decide on a title for your song? Let’s think about it.
When I get an inspiration, an idea for a new song, there are several questions I ask myself. First, I ask myself if there is enough of a story in the idea to make a complete song, or is it just an idea that should be part of another song. If the answer to the first question is yes, I then ask myself if there is enough of an audience for this song when it is completed. Knowing your audience will help you decide on a title for your song. How to write a song title, that’s the question at hand.
Some songs, even if they are well written, have only a small audience they would appeal to, so a music publisher would not be interested in signing it. There wouldn’t be enough people who would want to buy the CD and after all, to music business professionals, money is the bottom line and the main motivator. It doesn’t matter how good of a songwriter and lyricist you are, some things are out of your control. However, some of these “small audience” songs might end up as an “album cut”, meaning a song that is on the CD but isn’t marketed a as a hit song, but the best rule for writing a new song, is to always swing for the fence, try to make all your songs hit material.
Let’s assume your idea is a good one and there is a huge potential audience for it. The next step is to write a summery of your story. From this summary you are going to write the lyrics and the eventually the melody and music for your new song. Let’s use that great universal subject for our song, love. Our song idea will be I’m going to marry you. Obviously, this idea would appeal to millions of people since most people, if they are single, do they want to get married. Our summary would tell a story that has to do with getting married. This story is probably about a man, maybe a woman, who has chosen who they want to marry. The intended may or may not know about his/her desire. That’s where your creativity comes in. Write your summary of the story that you will then turn into song lyrics.
Titles and Hooks
After you answer the question, “What is the title of my song going to be”, your next job is to think about hooks (See my article about hooks). Here you need to decide what the central point of your song is and create song hooks around this thought. Briefly, a hook is anything that will help the listener remember the song. With many songs, it’s the melody, the chorus or even some of the lyrics. It might even a be a sound effect added to make the song more interesting.
Once you have your hooks, begin turning your summary into song lyrics. The best way to start this process is to try and write the chorus. The chorus is the “nut” is the central part of your song, the main point, and is a hook in itself. The best choruses are 4-6 line phrases that tell the main part of the story.
Once you have your chorus, start writing your first verse. The first verse should be lines that lead the listener to the chorus. In this case it should begin talking about the 2 characters involved in the story and how they are going to get to the point of getting married. Again, this is where your creativity comes in as there is always more than one way you can take the listener, and remember, people listening love surprises.
At this point you’ve got your chorus, which will be repeated several times and your first verse. Next write the second verse. The object of the second verse is to move the story along towards the conclusion you have planned. Keep in mind that every word you write needs to be related to your central idea. Don’t get side tracked talking about oranges if your song is about apples.
To Bridge or Not To Bridge
When you are finished with the first and second verses and the chorus, ask your self if you have told the whole story. If you fell you have one more thing to say, the bridge is the place to say it.
If you think you want or need a bridge, write a 1-4 line section that takes the story In a new direction while staying related to the main theme. The bridge almost always changes melody, rhythm and feel.
From here a song usually goes either to an instrumental section or to the final chorus. Occasionally the songwriter will include a last verse, but seldom is there time for it. Remember, most songs have 2 ½ – 3 ½ minutes to tell the story.
Watch for my other articles that go into more detail about these song sections. Keep this in your notes to refer to when you begin a new song. God bless and keep writing.
Dealing With Rejection
This article is meant to be sort of a survival guide for songwriters, singers and musicians who have left home and moved to Nashville, L. A. or New York in hopes of becoming successful at whatever their dream is. But I especially want to speak to the songwriting hopefuls and touch on a few areas specifically germane to them. Hopefully you singers and musicians can see how to apply these tips to your own situation.
To prepare for a career as a professional songwriter, obviously the craft must be learned and learned well. Sometimes getting the right information can be frustrating. If you want to become a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer or follow one of many career paths, there are many institutions of higher education you could attend to learn your chosen field. But for songwriters, unfortunately there is no “Songwriter University” where you can get a degree in songwriting to prepare you for what you long to do. Not only do you have to figure out how to learn the craft, but somewhere along the way you must also learn about other things related to songwriting like making demos, hiring musicians for those demos, who is recording and looking for material and who will listen to your songs. There is a lot an aspiring songwriter needs to know to reach his or her goals.
Perhaps in future articles I will deal with each of these areas, but right now I want to talk about what you do once you feel you have a few songs ready to pitch. I am going to assume that you have already made demos of your material and it’s just a matter of playing them for someone who hopefully can get them recorded by an artist. After all, that’s how us songwriters make money. The songs have to get cut so they can begin to earn money.
Let’s talk about the songwriter just starting out pitching songs for the first time. He or she has worked hard to learn the craft, maybe even performed at some writer’s nights around town and has probably gotten a bit of feedback from friends and other songwriters they have met along the way. But I will step out here and say that most new songwriters are unprepared for what they will face when they begin pitching songs to professionals in the music industry. These professionals might be music publishers, A & R people or even artists. But what new songwriters don’t realize is that for all but the luckiest and most talented, they are about to get a wake up call about their chosen career. Because we are all emotional creatures, most of us are not prepared for what we will face when we ask an industry professional to listen to our songs with the hopes that they can help us get them recorded by an artist. The one area of the music industry that is seldom talked about but is responsible for impeding more songwriting careers and sometimes even destroying them can be summed up in one word…rejection. Many songwriters tend to treat their songs as their children that they have “raised from infancy”. Their hopes and dreams are all tied up in their songs. They have often played these songs for friends, family and maybe even some other songwriters and have probably gotten glowing feedback about them. But pitching them to the pros is a whole different world. Think for a moment about what music industry professionals must go through as they go about doing their job. They are the ones who can make or break the careers of the hopefuls. They hear probably hundreds of songs every week hoping to find one great hit song for an artist. People are always coming to them with a “sure thing” hit song and want them to listen to it. So they listen to it only to be disappointed again that it is not quite what they are looking for or need. So when a songwriter comes to their office with his or her material, to them it’s just another unproven writer looking for a break.
I like to compare it to what the contestants on American Idol go through every week. They get up and have about 2 minutes to show what they can do. The great ones get accolades. The rest get critiques from the judges that sometimes crush them. But here’s the difference. On American Idol, even if the contestant has performed poorly, they usually get some feedback from the judges that is meant to help them improve. Even Simon Cowell, who is well known for his sometimes harsh criticisms, will offer a suggestion or two to help the contestant even if his suggestion is for them to stick to their day job.
In the music industry, many times, probably most times, songwriters don’t even get that much in the form of feedback. Picture one of these new songwriters meeting with a music publisher in Nashville. He comes in and sits down. The publisher might say hello and then asks for their material. He will start the first song and listen for maybe 10 or 15 seconds. If he doesn’t hear anything he likes in that short time frame, he will fast forward to the next song. When he is through skimming through all the songs and hasn’t heard anything he likes, he will likely thank them for coming by and maybe say something like. “That’s not what we’re looking for” or “It doesn’t do much for me” or something similar. No critique, no feedback and no comments other than “NO”. That’s all they have time for.
At this point many new songwriters are crushed. They were so hopeful and maybe expecting great things to happen. They never entertain the idea that they might not be ready yet for the big time. At this point most songwriters who experience this harsh rejection for the first time either find a way to deal with it, work to improve their songs and try again, or they pack up and go home. It happens to almost everyone who moves to a major music market. It happened to one of the biggest Country Music Stars when he first started. If you will stay with me I’ll tell you who that is at the end of the article.
Since I started out saying this was a survival guide of sorts, I want to tell you how I got through this rejection period when I was first starting out. Not long after I moved to Nashville, I took the tapes of my songs and got them to a music industry professional contact I had through a friend. The songs on those tapes had been played for a lot of people, and we even performed some of them in different bands I was in over the years. The responses had always been good, sometimes even great so when I first came to Nashville I thought I was a pretty good songwriter and was even a bit cocky about it at the time. I will never forget how I felt when I got the word that this industry big shot was less than thrilled with my songs. The best he would say was that one of them “had potential”. Needless to say, I was crushed.
Yes, I wanted to pack up and go home, but I didn’t. I got out the Yellow Pages and began calling music publishers trying to get appointments with them. It took me almost 2 years from that point before I began getting songs accepted by Nashville publishing companies.
During that time I heard a lot of “No” and “No Thank You”. I’ll admit it hurt every time, but here is how I got through it. (This is the survival guide part, so listen carefully).
I developed what I call my “Split Personality” technique. I looked at myself as 2 completely different people. There was the me that all my family and friends loved and adored, and then there was the “songwriting business me”. I looked at the latter as totally separate from the personal me. The “songwriting business me” was like a suit of amour I would put on whenever I went out pitching or performing my songs. I literally envisioned myself putting on this suit of amour every time I went out to pitch songs. I trained myself to listen to song critiques through the ears of the “songwriting business me” instead of the personal me. I trained myself to look at the “songwriting business me” as a product that I was developing into something great. So instead of hearing a rejection in a critique and taking it personally, what I heard was a suggestion for making the “songwriting business me” better. Picture yourself as the manager of an aspiring singer. Your job is to make that singer the best they can be and make them successful. This is what you should do for yourself as you become the manger of the “songwriting business you”.
Hopefully, this makes sense to you and will help you through the sometimes rough waters of the music industry. Just remember, nobody can steal your dreams from you. Yes it is tough out there but it’s worth it in the end.
Now, about that Country Music Star who tucked tail and went home after the first time he experienced rejection in Nashville. That would be none other than the great Garth Brooks. The way I heard it, he was in town less than 24 hours before he packed up and went back to Oklahoma. He thought Music City would welcome him with open arms but when it didn’t…! Thankfully for us all he decided to give it another try. Learn how to split your personality and never, ever give up.
Copyright © 2011 Joe Russ. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Joe Russ.